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Labor must be clear about what it is for, not just what it is against

As we enter the ninth year of a conservative NSW Government more interested in being a contracts manager than a provider of actual public services, NSW Labor needs to look forward to a vision that includes all of NSW - not just the cities. NSW Labor's Deputy Leader Yasmin Catley explores what that vision looks like.

As Labor readies itself for the next state election, we must take stock of who and what we are as a political movement and realign ourselves with the values and the ambitions of the people we seek to represent.


At the last election, we campaigned with the slogan ‘Schools and Hospitals Before Stadiums’, but few people if any can articulate what we actually offered for schools or hospitals. We fell into the trap of defining ourselves by what we were against, and we failed to explain how we would improve or build those things we claimed to believe in.


We often think of state government as a service delivery platform and little else, leaving federal government to carry the burden of driving significant reform agendas. Certainly, after 9 years of conservative control in New South Wales, the power of state governments to shape and redefine societies has been forgotten and the NSW Government has become a simple contracts manager rather than a provider of actual public services.


As we prepare for the next election in 2023, we have an opportunity to respond to the changing nature of work, the diverse needs in communities right across New South Wales from Western Sydney to regional and remote areas, the demands of a changing climate, and the erosion of public services, with a policy platform that not only offers all voters – including swing voters - an effective electoral message but a platform which sets out a genuine Labor agenda for the direction of our state.


Last year, NSW Labor’s leader Jodi McKay was elected by rank-and-file ballot on a platform that included ambitious and progressive commitments to restore manufacturing in our state, reduce class sizes in schools, and tackle the housing and homelessness crisis which grips our state. We have also committed ourselves to rebuilding the public TAFE system, ending privatisation of government assets and services, setting an ambitious state renewable energy target and negotiating a Treaty with the Aboriginal community.


These are not just slogans, but tangible commitments which voters can take seriously and apply to their own lives. Crucially, they all have a basis in our left wing, collectivist principles and values.


We need to reassure these workers that Labor is not a party of Sydney-elites demanding they take a job in a café and forgo the rewarding, well-paid careers they’ve enjoyed and built a life around.

We must also respond to broader pressures on our economy and employment landscape from beyond our state border. We know that, nationwide, 1 in 5 jobs created in the next 3 years will be in the NDIS scheme. We should support the significant proportion of those jobs which will exist in New South Wales with an effective training and professional development scheme delivered through our public TAFE system. We also need to show that we will deal with the shortages of people trained in key trades, and that we understand that a well-resourced public TAFE system is integral to addressing this issue.


Likewise, New South Wales can lead the way on renewable energy by investing in public infrastructure – large scale projects that will not just contribute to our emissions reductions targets, but demonstrate to mining and energy workers what we mean when we tell them that we have a vision for their future.


Mining and energy workers want to vote Labor, but they need to know there will be skilled, secure, and well-paid jobs with a long term future. But in the same way that our election slogans of the recent past have failed to articulate what we actually aim to achieve, we must accept that the failed ‘Just Transition’ language is also meaningless for these workers. We should instead be outlining concrete plans for the future and explaining precisely what we mean when we assure those workers that there will good jobs for them in a future public renewable energy system. This should include policies that address the lack of economic diversity in some regions, which has led to communities relying on only one or two major employers for their economic survival.


Tangible and realistic plans for a renewable energy future are essential if we are to stem the flow of blue-collar voters from Labor to the Liberals and One Nation. In my own electorate, at the old Lake Munmorah power station, we have the perfect location for a renewable energy project that brings together large scale solar with offshore wind at a site which is already connected to the existing electricity grid infrastructure. An ambitious policy for a publicly owned energy utility that offers our mining and energy workers a future and a future for their children is the only way we can be taken seriously on the question of a so-called ‘Just Transition’. We need to reassure these workers that Labor is not a party of Sydney-elites demanding they take a job in a café and forgo the rewarding, well-paid careers they’ve enjoyed and built a life around.


Labor will only be taken seriously by those working-class voters who abandoned us in recent years when we explain what we will do differently and put some significant policy meat on the bones of our public statements and election commitments.

Yasmin Catley is the Member for Swansea and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NSW.


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